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Battling Breast Cancer with Five Breakthrough Projects

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“If you look at the winning projects, two of them are personalized therapy for triple negative breast cancer,” said Prof. Stebbing. “As oncologists we call it triple negative, which shows a lack of understanding of it, because cancer is positive for so many things. To call it triple negative is like calling a rock a non-human, non-animal, non-vegetable.” 

GE Healthcare announced the five winners of the first stage of the healthymagination Cancer Challenge last week. The Challenge, which was a call to action for oncology researchers, businesses, and other innovators around the world to accelerate innovation and help stop this deadly disease, used an open innovation model and discovered more than 500 ideas from 40 countries. The five winning entries were each awarded $100,000. GE will also provide support for each winner through mentorship and access to GE researchers and industry thought leaders.

Prof. Stebbing, an expert oncologist and Professor of Cancer Medicine and Medical Oncology at the Imperial College, London, collaborated with GE as one of the judges for the first stage of the challenge. GE Healthcare interviewed Professor Stebbing. He shared his thoughts on the healthymagination challenge approach and how it reflects the innovation community’s needs: “I think it’s massively exciting. It’s where the big ideas will come in the future and the way I think grants will be organized in the future too,” he said.

“Being a judge was very difficult because the standard of the applications was really very high,” said Prof. Stebbing. “It was also very satisfying because we have obviously come a very long way in oncology in the last five years. The biggest advances we’re making are in understanding that cancer is a highly heterogeneous disease—that a one size fits all strategy no longer applies. We cannot always tell or predict who is going to do well with treatment but we can tell when there might not be a responsive treatment. We are not at the point where we are working out which treatments will work, but we are pretty far in working out the treatments that won’t work.”

Dr. Stebbing said that his criteria for choosing these projects was simple; he wanted projects that would make a difference as supposed to a box-ticking exercise, not only to the universities or institutions, but also to potentially thousands of women across the world affected by this disease. He wanted to see ambitious and achievable projects.

The Winners

The five innovation award winners have the potential to help doctors find cancer earlier, make more accurate diagnoses and choose the best possible treatment based on each patient’s unique cancer. Find out more about them here:

The University of Akron’s project, ‘Creating Safer and Stronger Breast Implants with Cancer-fighting and Healing Properties’ is ambitious and innovative. It involves developing new breast implant materials for breast cancer patients. These implants, which use coatings embedded with pharmaceutical agents, could help to fight infection, reduce inflammation and possibly target and destroy cancer cells.

“I don’t think people realize the controversy with the PIP implants, so it’s a very timely proposal,” said Prof. Stebbing. “What’s good about this idea is that now instead of just offering a mastectomy, we are also offering, in many occasions, mastectomies with reconstructions; whether it’s immediate or delayed for a variety of reasons. This idea proposes a new coating for tissue expanders or implants that is designed to fight infection, reduce inflammation and may even help to fight cancer … something we haven’t yet seen!”

‘Identifying a Predisposition to Cancer Spread’ is an idea developed by the Moffitt Cancer Center. The Cancer Center is working on a diagnostic testing baseline to understand the genetics behind the appearance of cancer in patients, and to study the role of genes in making some patients predisposed to the disease. “They are looking for a modified gene fingerprint or signature that could potentially place any individual at greater risk for developing spread rather than traditional parameters,” explained Prof. Stebbing. 

Professor Stebbing describes the concept of the ‘Saving Lives in Developing Countries’ project. “We know that cancer in Africa and in underdeveloped countries is a massive problem, but we’re not there yet with our understanding with the demographics of the pathogenesis and the prevalence. Although, for example, in the UK there are 550,000 women living with breast cancer and a one to one and a half percent relapse per year with incurable disease. We have no figures like that in places like Kampala,” he said.

In order to reach out to hard-to-access areas and to provide breast ultrasound testing in developing countries such as Uganda, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is developing a breast cancer screening program to identify cancer in young women with palpable lumps. The need for information and awareness in Uganda is paramount and will help to detect cancer in its early stages. This initiative plans to offer free educational sessions in Uganda, and people with symptoms will be offered a free breast exam and ultrasound. 

“Within that project they establish a pathway which is critical… in this case women with suspicious lumps are referred to the Uganda Cancer Institute,” added Prof. Stebbing.

The recurring theme for two of these winning projects developed by Vanderbilt University has been what oncologists call Triple Negative Breast Cancer, which is a condition that affects one of every 10 breast cancer sufferers according to the Breast Cancer Organization. This cancer is typically more aggressive than others and it cannot be treated with hormonal therapy or therapies that target HER2 receptors.

“If you look at the winning projects, two of them are related to personalized therapy for triple negative breast cancer,” said Prof. Stebbing. “As oncologists we call it triple negative, which shows a lack of understanding of it, because cancer is positive for so many things. To call it triple negative is like calling a rock a non-human, non-animal, non-vegetable.”

‘MyCancerGenome’, is a free online cancer medicine resource which was developed specifically to target triple negative breast cancer. This project draws on the interest that doctors and researchers have in order to treat this type of breast cancer, and features a free online medical resource for patients, caregivers and physicians. The application will provide treatment options, as well as clinical trials for triple negative breast cancer.

Prof. Stebbing explained the project: “It’s an online application that’s easy for doctors, patients and researchers and is an online forum for this disease. It really is really an unmet medical need. I think everyone was very surprised at the failure of the parp inhibitor studies, indicating that we have a long way to go with the understanding of this disease.”

‘Moving to Personalized Therapy for Triple Negative Breast Cancer’ is the second winning innovation from Vanderbilt University,developed in the Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center. Their discovery demonstrated that there are six subtypes of triple negative breast cancer that are likely to respond differently to chemotherapy.

“Here, the goal is selecting patients that are most likely to respond to a particular treatment,” said Prof. Stebbing.“This initiative will develop specialized treatment targeting the subtypes of this cancer.  Moving to a more personalized approach to cancer treatment is the future, which is this entry is extremely exciting,” said Prof. Stebbing.

About Professor Stebbing

Professor Justin Stebbing trained in medicine at Trinity College Oxford, where he gained a triple first class degree. After the completion of junior positions in Oxford, he undertook junior doctor training and a residency at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the US, returning to London to continue his career in oncology at The Royal Marsden and then St Bartholomew's Hospitals. Prof. Stebbing’s PhD research investigated the interplay between the immune system and cancer.

Prof. Stebbing has published over 400 peer-reviewed papers in journals such as the Lancet, New England Journal, Blood, the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Annals of Internal Medicine, as well as writing regularly for national newspapers and presenting new data on optimal cancer therapies at the major international conferences. His focus at Imperial is on new therapies in cancer, and the systemic management of patients with solid malignancies including a number of new biomarker-based approaches. His laboratory work is concentrated on new druggable target discovery. He has also set up his own cancer charity, Action Against Cancer, which concentrates on drug development across a variety of solid tumor types.

healthymagination Challenge

The healthymagination Challenge, launched in September, is part of GE’s healthymagination commitment to accelerate cancer innovation by investing $1 billion in cancer technology research and development as well as improve care for 10 million cancer patients around the world by 2020.

Additional strategic commercial partnership announcements from the Challenge will be made later in 2012.